Canwen Xu: "I Am Not Your Asian Stereotype"
You may recognize Canwen from her viral TED Talk “I Am Not Your Asian Stereotype,” discussing her experience as an Asian American growing up in the United States. Read below to learn more about Canwen’s views on identity and activism.
Tell us about yourself!
I’m a junior at Columbia University studying political science with a minor in computer science. I’m originally from Boise, Idaho, but I’ve also lived in Texas, North Dakota, and South Dakota!
What first compelled you to be an activist? And what did it mean to you at the time? Was there an experience in your childhood that led to it? Or an observation about the world?
Growing up, I always had difficulty grappling with my Asian-American identity. Even though the experience of living in an almost all-white community was something all of my Asian friends shared, we never talked about it. Yet, it was always a point of tension internally, at least for me.
When applications for TEDxBoise 2016 came out, I originally had a different topic in mind. But during a workshop the event planners hosted to help us prepare for the application, one of the coordinators suggested that I choose a topic that I could uniquely speak on. She brought up Asian-American issues as just an example, and suddenly, in the middle of that conversation, I started tearing up. I hate crying in public and pretty much never do, but for some reason, all of the discomfort around my identity boiled up and I couldn’t stop myself.
Before that point, I had never imagined myself as an activist for the Asian-American community. My identity issues were always something that were boiling under the surface but that I mostly repressed. But at that moment I knew I had something to say.
What is Asian Fetishization and how can we best eradicate it?
I actually led a workshop on this topic at the MAASU conference in Boulder a few weeks ago. People define it in different ways, but generally speaking, Asian fetishization is having a strong romantic preference for individuals of Asian descent. I don’t think preferences are by themselves problematic, but I think they often lead to extremely problematic mindsets. For instance, the fetishization of Asian women often causes the stereotyping of all Asian women as docile/submissive. We’re seen as “exotic,” but in a weirdly homogeneous way, which means we aren’t seen as individuals.
On a societal level, it’s important to see better representation of Asians in the media. On an individual level, we need to recognize that Asians all have their own unique experiences and shouldn’t be labeled a certain way because of their race.
Within the Asian American community, there's a lot of division amongst what it means to be Asian American / the Asian American experience - where do you see these point of contingencies developing and how can we address them? (ie: the term "Asian" gets reduced to simply meaning East-Asian or South East Asian thus perpetuating a stereotype whilst negating West Asians, South Asians, Central Asians etc.)
Because I am personally of east-Asian descent, I recognize that most of the narratives around Asian identity are centered around experiences like mine -- which is a huge blind spot in the activist community. I always stress that the Asian experience is not homogeneous, and varies not just between different regional backgrounds but between individual experiences. The differences between individuals within the same group are always more prominent than the differences between groups themselves. In a similar vein, the differences between sub-groups within a large group are more prominent than the differences between large groups with other large groups.
This is my issue with identity politics in general - it inevitably places labels upon groups at the expense of their individual identities. West Asians, South Asians, Central Asians are still Asian and should be actively included in the conversation, but at the same time, we need to recognize that their experiences are not the same as East Asians and Southeast Asians. We should make an active effort to include all Asian perspectives, so that we can recognize just how heterogeneous the Asian experience is.
What does your activism mean to you now? How has that changed over time?
It’s been almost exactly three years since my somewhat viral TEDx talk, so I’ve been reflecting on this question a lot recently. The more speeches I give, the more I realize that I can’t tell people what to do. What I mean is that everyone’s journey is so different -- the best I can do is share my story, and hope that inspires someone else to share theirs too.
If you could give one piece of advice to a young activist, what would that be?
Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. I usually am compensated for my speaking engagements, but I make an active effort to ensure that I’m never relying on these events for income. Being an activist means you’re speaking for a larger group, so you should never let your personal interests get in the way. Honesty and authenticity are the most important.